What happens to a videogame hero when they die? There are different theories floating around, the most entertaining of them seems to be that each failure creates a new universe where the hero’s death carries on, as if the game is some kind of Schrodinger box where an endless set of possible universes are created at every move but the game only communicates the relatively limited successes through progress. The Legend of Zelda goes far enough with this logic to use it as a basis for its canon. A failed quicktime event in many of the Tomb Raider or Dead Space games results in an intimate exhibit of the protagonist’s butchery. Similarly, should an errant punch fell the dark knight in the Arkham Games, the player is treated to a villain’s mockery before Gotham falls into criminal tyranny. These games show players what failure looks like; enough to fill in the gaps of what the world will become after the hero’s tragic death by goomba.
But, as fun as this kind of thinking can be, it assumes a verisimilitude in game universes. Hopefully we can avoid letting this conversation get too Big, but the universe is a complicated and unpredictable system. While there are plenty of reasonable ideas about how it operates let’s agree—for only a moment—that the universe is chaotic and undetermined. Videogames are not chaotic, nor are they undetermined: somebody makes them. Everything is composed and put in its place for a reason, intention is not always served, but there’s still order to it. Assuming we’re all still on the same page (we’re not and that’s fine), the universe as we know it, is not a creative endeavour.
Games (and books and movies and wrestling matches and whatever) are put together by people for a purpose. Even if it’s just a financial investment based on focus testing: a game is designed. There is no version of Mushroom Kingdom overrun with koopas because Mario fell into a death pit after his player’s mom called him to pick his clothes off the floor. The only version of the Mushroom Kingdom that exists in Super Mario World is first savable and ultimately saved. It doesn’t matter how the kingdom is saved, which levels are skipped or which enemies are beaten—the acts of play that work through success create tone—in the end success can be treated as the ultimate, canonical and “true” ending. The design in the game gives the player a finite set of apparently similar conclusions. There are countless possible paths to the conclusion, but the conclusion is predetermined.
So what, then, is the place of the player? Even in the most open world there are points in that world that create identifiable progression. The player can recognize that they are deeper into the experience because the plot tells them so; their stats have improved, they’ve acquired the jetpack or they’ve earned enough relationship points to have viciously hot sex with an NPC during a fade-to-black. The player knows they have advanced past A because they now occupy B and can look forward to C. Players count on developers to create a sequence of logical events. But the players also count on developers to make them feel responsible for the outcome that has already been determined.
The player ought to feel like a part of the creative process. The player does not just experience the design as it is; they experience their own version of it. There isn’t really a proper way to play a game in the way one really ought to start with the front cover of a book and read pages in numerical order until the end. The player exploits the assets the system makes available to them until Bowser is floating face up in lava. But Bowser doesn’t just fall into the lava, the player puts him there. Whether Bowser’s move from bridge to lava was a result of a desperate last ditch dive or a quick, smooth and confidant outmaneuvering changes the context of the event and that change has interpretive value (Filipowich, Mark. “The Narration and Abstraction of Bodies in Games.” bigtallwords. Mar 5 2014.). The game may be a created piece but context created through play is monumental in interpreting what it means; that makes the player necessary in creating the experience.
The trouble is finding where exactly the player stands. Is the player’s action in the world like that of an actor on stage ad-libbing the lines and blocking while the rest of the cast reacts? However, games follow a developer’s envisioned script, be that a script of scenes or a more general narrative flow of accruing power and resources or driving toward some scripted end goal. More importantly, there is no “proper” delivery of the game’s events: it doesn’t matter if success comes with ease or with struggle, even if those contexts alter its meaning. The player is restricted only by a loose set of cues which play then sets the tone for.
However, the player-as-actor association is imperfect because even though the player has the agency of a performer in a script, there still is a script, one that awaits the player’s input to follow. The player is always there, playing, but there’s an understanding that the player is not a part of the world, the player-character exists as their surrogate in the fiction but the relationship between player and avatar is calculable only in reality, not in the fiction (Joffe, Mike. “Spect-actors in Novels and Video Games”. May 12 2013. Video Games of the Oppressed). The player acts, but only within the dimensions allowed by the developer. The actions of the player are limited to a narrow set that will lead to a successful telling of the developer’s story. Failure to fulfil the script leads to infinite do-overs until the player gets it right and advances. The player is only free to act until they’ve acted the right way.
Does that, then, make the player closer to a director working with someone else’s material? If so than the player is there to arrange the world in an order that delivers the biggest impact. Not knowing the script in advance, the player-as-director is tasked with creating the best experience possible (while experiencing someone else’s creation). A failed level or even a regrettable dialogue option that prompts the player to load a previous save state is akin to a director calling for a cut to re-shoot a broken scene. How many players have been reduced to shouting at their cast to take the scene from the last cue because they just haven’t been doing it right. The player-director begins with a character creation screen to “cast” the perfect star and ends with a conclusion that compromises the developer-writer/crew’s and player-director’s vision. In this regard, the player’s goal is to strive for a Platonic ideal of the experience through trial and error, taking away the Real game in their minds while scrapping the mistakes, the grinding, the repeated dialogue and the obligatory shopping trips.
Of course, ignoring everything outside of the ideal play through removes most of the experience. Mistakes, experimentation, unknown and unpredictable variables, close calls, dumb luck, glitches and trial-and-error are central to the experience of games. In fact, it’s the un-ideal that makes games what they are. One of my favourite gaming experiences was the fluctuating despair and triumph that came with cooperatively playing the especially brutal levels late in Donkey Kong Country 2. All those scenes that should have been cut to the editing room floor, all those errors that were rehearsed out of the final experience—the missed jumps, the white knuckle platforming sequences, the bees, the God Damned Bees—were what made the game worth playing. An appreciation of many games only comes with understanding all the preparation for and impediments to player success.
The judgment errors of your typical Bioware RPG or the learning curve built into a roguelike have no substitute. Mistakes and poorly executed operations are a part of these games, a smoothed out perfect version doesn’t exist because they’re meant to be stumbled through awkwardly. Most of the nougetty meaning at the centre of the milk chocolate that is videogames comes wrapped in the caramel of player involvement: and that means approaching the unknown and making mistakes. The player can’t be an actor because they’re experiencing the piece without any guidance and they can’t be a director because a director must eliminate imperfections for the sake of the final piece, but games often thrive on imperfections, to the point where they are unrecognizable without them.
This, however, is all assuming a limited interpretation of games as a storytelling medium. The easy answer that’s often defaulted on is that players are players and games are games and that’s all different from everything else. But the point I’ve been slithering around is that I don’t buy that. What is the role of the player? Player input is the necessary and sufficient qualifier for a “game” but consensus can only be reached about what a player is not.
I grant that there are exceptions to what I’ve been talking about. There are games that fold fail-states into the telling, Toren being the one that has most recently captured my attention (“Girl at the End of the World.” bigtallwords. Jun 11 2015.). Moreover, speed runs are the performance of an unfailed game shaved down to its most efficient form. But to return to a more general way of thinking about them, the way that games behave narratively depends on the player’s scripted creativity. Okay, so it’s tautological to say that games should be players acting in rulesets, but I want to call attention not just that games stress player activity in an unknown (or limitedly chaotic for you re-players out there) script, but just how the experience of acting and reacting “improper” events compose a total experience in a way that demands the presence and erasure of failure.
Further reading: Jackson, Gita. “I’m afraid to die in games.” Boing Boing. Apr 20 2015.
Hamilton, Mary. “Every Player is an Author.” Metamedia. Sep 1 2013.
Blythe Adams, Meghan. “Mistakes Were Made: Hideous Agency and Catharsis in Fallout 3.” The Bagatelle. Sep 29 2014.
Beirne, Stephen. “And you with it, speck of dust.” Normally Rascal. June 20 2014.
Velocci, Carli. “I Had a Panic Attack While Playing The Walking Dead. Is this a Good Thing?” Kill Screen. July 31 2014.
Abraham, Ben. Permanent Death – The Complete Saga. Subterranean Loner Rendered Comatose. Dec 4 2009